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tearing the region apart? the costs of iraqi kurdistan’s diplomacy

Roman Zagros
The two most important politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan have different international allegiances: one to Iran and the other to Turkey. And recently those allegiances have been causing trouble inside the mostly…
6.12.2012  |  London

The allegiance of Iraqi Kurds’ most influential leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, to Iran and Turkey, is not a figment of the political analyst’s imagination. It is real. And it could cost the Iraqi Ku2rds dearly.

It is strong enough to have forced the former rivals to appear on different sides of several important political arguments, mostly over matters crucial to the two regional superpowers – that includes the Shiite coalition ruling in Baghdad and the Kurdish question in Turkey, and now in Syria.

The parties of Iraqi President, Talabani, and the President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, currently run the Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government in a coalition. These parties are, respectively, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

But in reality, the semi-autonomous region is split between the two and the areas that traditionally fell under their control are still dubbed the “green” and “yellow” zones - after the colours of the parties’ flags – and they informally maintain total command over the armed forces in each respective zone.

But perhaps that kind of mistrust the two sides are demonstrating at the moment is not all that surprising; the two parties were involved in bloody infighting for a good part of the 1970s and 80s, and for four years in the 90s.

The past few months have seen the two parties publicly disagree on several key issues, including the region\'s draft Constitution, their position on Turkey and its Kurdish question, the central government and not least their own 2007 strategic agreement, which saw the two parties agree on the terms by which they now rule Iraqi Kurdistan.

Before the Syrian conflict came to split the agendas of Iran and Turkey so clearly apart, the former Iraqi Kurdish foes had managed to set their difference aside and they have practically marched in lockstep over key issues since signing the agreement.

But divergence of the two leaders’ path became especially apparent when, earlier this year, Talabani refused to sign a motion of no-confidence against Iraq’s current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which brought an effort led by Barzani to unseat al-Maliki, to a grinding halt.

Considering Iraqi Kurdistan’s geostrategic and long-term economic importance to Iran and Turkey, both of whom have a sizeable Kurdish population, it is not farfetched to claim that unless there is a major strategic rethinking by the Kurdish leaders, Iraqi Kurdistan will bear the brunt of this regional polarization as their leaders are pulled apart along the lines of their conflicting loyalties – this could result in a division so severe that it may well compromise its territorial integrity.

Latest estimates put the size of Iraqi Kurdistan’s annual trade with Turkey at US$8 billion to US$10 billion and, despite an international blockade, at $8 billion with Iran. Barzani’s yellow zone facilitates Turkish trade and Talabani’s green zone caters for Iranian trade.

Additionally Iraqi Kurdistan’s newly estimated 45 billion potential barrels of oil sets it comfortably high up on the world’s energy map, a fact that the neighbours and many Western oil majors have recognized and acted upon.

Much of Iraqi Kurdistan’s success with the oil industry owes to Barzani’s insistence on keeping Kurdishresources away from Baghdad’s centralized bureaucracy – this has also brought him closer to Turkey but it’s brought with it the risk of moving further away from his ally, Talabani. The latter was not onlynot invited to play a part in the Turkish deals but also placed in an awkward position in Baghdad where he has had to explain his ally’s actions.

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, Talabani has been on the lookout for opportunities beyond the current alliance and beyond Iraqi Kurdistan too. His party has reached out to Turkey’s Peace and Democracy Party (known as BDP), an opposition party in the Turkish parliament that supports the Kurdistan Workers\' Party, or PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish government for more rights and autonomy and which is considered by some a “terrorist organisation”.

Earlier in October, days after Barzani returned from a conference run by Turkey\'s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where he had delivered a speech in favour of Erdogan, a leading member of Talabani’s party told a Peace and Democracy Party conference that Ankara cannot view the Kurds with “Ottoman eyes”.

Talabani’s party also recently signed apetitionprotesting Turkey\'s dire human rights records. Rather tellingly, all the major Iraqi Kurdish political parties and organizations signed the petition – apart from Barzani’s.

Barzani further aligned himself with Turkey by endorsing the Turkey-approved Syrian Kurdish National Council instead of an armed PKK offshoot working in Syria. In Syria the PKK-associated movement has two wings, with the political side known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the military wing named the Popular Protection Units (or YPG).

Barzani also arranged for a meeting between the Turkish foreign minister and Council officials in Erbil,thus openly turningmore of a cold shoulder to the PKK.

And then Talabani turned his back on Barzani on yet another crucial Kurdish matter: Iraqi Kurdistan’s draft Constitution.

Having pushed the charter through the Kurdistan parliament in 2009 as a political favour to Barzani,in late September, Talabani signed a memorandum with another influential Kurdish player, one of his former allies, Nawshirwan Mustafa, who currently heads Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest opposition party, the Change movement – the memo aimed to bring the draft Constitution back to parliament for major surgery.

Mustafa commands a 23-seat opposition bloc in the 111-seat Kurdistan Parliament – but before splitting from the party and forming an opposition movement back in 2009, he served as Talabani’s deputy for decades. And currently, Talabani and his former deputy have the numbers it takes to form a government.

It is widely believed that Iran brokered the deal that saw the two long-troubled former allies set aside their differences. Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Qods force, a special military unit of the Iranian army that often works beyond the Iranian borders, visited Talabani’s “green zone” in September, following a trip Mustafa made to Tehran back in June.

Local press suggested that part of Soleimani’s message was to urge the green zone’s allies, which also includes Mustafa, not to side with Syrian rebels.

The Barzani-Talabani alliance of convenience - which was, in essence, a means to end rivalrybetween the two and which culminated in a finely-balanced power sharing deal – now seems to be crumbling under the sway of their bigger neighbours. The proof: the two parties recently, and very publicly, called for a full review of the strategic agreement to address complaints from within.

Those complaints have mostly come from PUK hardliners, who have felt more and more disillusioned with the pact that, in practice, left them trailing behind the KDP.

Then again, many outside the two parties have also called for the agreement to be abolished because it’s seen as paralyzing democracy and rendering local elections meaningless – because as the two continue to share power, neither is prepared to concede anything to the other.

But perhaps a politically stable Kurdistan led by a stable long-term ruler is what Ankara is after. Ankara seems willing to back that horse, whether it is at the expense of local democracy or not.

There is a lot at stake: By aligning so heavily with Turkey, Barzani, is moving away from his former ally, Talabani and the PUK and the Change Movement. And because it is unlikely for the two green zone leaders to join Barzani’s cause, the two zones are increasingly being torn apart.

Roman Zagros is a UK-based media analyst and former BBC editor.He also edits the website:

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